Down 14 late and facing a tough division opponent on the road without your best player and with your second best not exactly lighting up the arena, it would not seem the odds would be in the Rockets' favor to close out with a win, but that is exactly what they did Monday night in Memphis. After scoring just 32 points in the entire first half, the NBA's No. 1 scoring team dropped 38 in the fourth quarter alone to rally for a 93-86 win over the Grizzlies, getting them to double-digit wins in the first month of the season with three games remaining before December.
This improbable win was made all the more so by the fact that coach Kevin McHale stuck with a lineup of Omer Asik, Chandler Parsons, Patrick Beverley, Omri Casspi and Francisco Garcia through most of the final frame. Dwight Howard had a forgettable game and James Harden missed his third consecutive contest with a sore foot, but McHale's instincts were rewarded with some late-game heroics from his (mostly) bench brigade.
The Rockets have won six of their last eight, with their only losses at Philadelphia against a surprising Sixers team and in Dallas thanks to a remarkable Mavericks fourth-quarter comeback. With home games against the struggling Hawks and Nets before a showdown with the Spurs this weekend, it would appear the Rockets have time to get Harden completely healthy without having to worry about losing streaks.
Through the first 15 games of the season, the formula for winning for this team has become clear. They are a devastatingly good offensive team with scorers galore and outstanding ball movement when they are at their best. They can beat you in the post, slashing to the basket, on the break and even on the perimeter where, despite some early-season struggles, they continue their dominance behind the three point line.
But the Rockets are at their absolute peak when they are playing well at the other end of the floor. With Howard, Asik and now the emergence of Terrence Jones as both rim protectors and rebounders, they only need to find consistency defending on the perimeter to quickly elevate themselves to one of the premier teams in the NBA.
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On both ends of the floor, Harden is ultimately the key, not because he is their best scorer but because how he shares the ball and how he defends will determine just how good the Rockets can be.
Monday night, when the Rockets were mounting their furious comeback, they did it with ball movement and stingy defense. When they were being buried by Dallas last week, they lost it with a lack of both. In that Dallas game, they were too often caught reaching on defense and playing one-on-one offensively. Harden is a brilliant scorer, but when he yo-yos the ball on the perimeter, too often the Rockets are standing around watching instead of keeping the offense flowing like they did in Memphis.
Recently, McHale said that, like most young players, Harden gets caught up in the offensive end of the floor, not paying attention on defense. He also said he knows Harden can be a good defender because he's seen him do it. Once he finally puts it together and gets a little better at moving the ball in critical situations, this team is going to be scary.
Fortunately, this is not a team plagued by chemistry problems. During the fourth-quarter run in Memphis, the entire bench, this time made up of starters and a bow tie-wearing Harden, was on its feet as the guys on the floor brought them back. These guys really do love playing together. It will be up to them to do it consistently and up to Harden to lead them.